Myanmar and the Fight to Restore Democracy
Updated: Apr 8, 2021
It is the early morning hours of February 1st, and the sun has yet to rise. Military vehicles and police spread out across Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, and rumble into residential areas, looking for their targets: democratically elected politicians. Soon they begin entering houses and detaining members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won a landslide victory in the national elections last November. Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, the equivalent of a Prime Minister, was placed under house arrest while President Win Myint was detained. Military leader Min Aung Hlaing seized power and declared a year-long state of emergency, claiming that the November election had been fraudulent. As the sun rose, the people of Myanmar awoke to a new reality: they were living in a military dictatorship.
This was not the first time Myanmar has been under such a government. Myanmar was a democracy from its independence in 1948 until 1962, when its military seized power. Despite major democratic movements in 1988 and 2007, the military maintained control until significant reforms were enacted in 2011. Democracy has become vastly popular in the country, specifically with the youth, and they are not willing to part with it.
While the first day of the coup d’état was relatively quiet due to the initial shock of what had occurred, people soon began to vent their frustrations and take to the streets, and others went on their balconies to bang cooking pots in solidarity. The nonviolent protests increased in number, forcing the military to cut internet access and threaten protestors with jail time or injury. Undeterred, workers began to go on strike, with teachers and doctors joining in solidarity. Miners, civil employees, professors, bankers, truck drivers, and many other workers have refused to return to their businesses until democracy is restored. There have also been several police groups that have resigned their posts or joined the democratic movement.
To quench the people’s revolutionary furor, Min Aung Hlaing suspended fundamental rights enshrined in the Myanmar constitution and declared martial law. This allowed the police and military to arrest citizens without clear evidence of a crime and search their properties without a warrant. This further angered the public, who did not want to see their hard-fought democracy fade away. Water-cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and other weapons were used to disperse protests as frustration grew. Now, police are using a new tactic: excessive force and lethal rounds. As of the last week of February, 26 protestors had been shot dead, while hundreds more were wounded, many as they ran away. In several instances, military snipers have been blamed for killings. For the Myanmar Ambassador to the United Nations, this was the final straw. Daringly, he decided to break ranks with the military government and called for the international community to intervene with any means necessary to restore democracy in the nation. He was promptly removed from his post.
As of this writing, the violence against protestors by the police and military has continued to escalate. However, protestors refuse to back down, believing that they can restore hope in a brighter future, even if it costs them their lives. They have begun to appear at protests wearing hardhats and brandishing shields of metal and plywood in scenes reminiscent of the Hong Kong student protests. If the military were to increase its use of excessive force to combat these protesters, they would risk drawing further condemnation from the international community, which has already frozen many of their external assets. However, if they were to give in and return power to the democratically elected politicians, their fate could be far worse. Whichever path they choose, the coup’s impacts will be felt for years throughout Southeast Asia.